Early pupils in Beijing


BEIJING -- In a sixth-grade class at Liangxiang No. 3 Primary School, 51 pupils were analyzing a painting by Vincent van Gogh yesterday when the buzzer sounded to end the period. Time for everyone to join in the ritual rubbing of the eyes, a daily exercise for young students across China.

In another classroom, 56 fourth-graders were enjoying reading time, but it was not exactly silent reading. Most read aloud at full volume, blissfully awash in the deafening sound of their own voices and waiting for the start of ceremonies marking the formal opening of school.

China's students have been returning to public schools over the past week, like many of their counterparts in the United States, but the first day is different here -- beginning with the fact that the first day really isn't first. Most children went to school one or two days before the formal beginning to turn in summer homework assignments, pick up textbooks and clean the school grounds.

China requires a minimum of nine years of school, and the literacy rate is officially estimated at more than 80 percent. But as in the United States, schools are financed locally, and the quality of education varies widely. Officials consider Liangxiang No. 3, in the southwest suburbs of Beijing, a model of how primary education should be.

Most of its 1,350 pupils come from the surrounding neighborhood, a suburban enclave where some families own their apartments, but the school's reputation extends beyond its district boundaries. More than 100 pupils transferred here this year, some of their families paying fees of as much as $400 to place their children.

They began arriving well before classes started at 7:50 a.m., almost everyone dressed in the school uniform of white collared shirts and blue plaid shorts and skirts. Almost everyone also wore a red scarf of the Communist Party's Young Pioneers.

At 9 a.m., a mass of pupils rushed outside to the parched earth of the school exercise field, lining up in long, orderly columns for the 15-minute opening ceremonies. They saluted -- right arm bent slightly and extended above the head -- as the national flag was raised and the national anthem blared through the crackling public address system.

"Learn advanced knowledge and improve the environment," the school headmaster, Shi Shouli, urged the pupils, before leading them in reciting the school's motto: Strive to be practical, strive for truth, strive for knowledge.

Environmental protection is the school's theme, touched upon when pupils told how they spent the summer. A sixth-grader said she learned to swim. "And I was happy to see that at the swimming pool people would take the garbage away with them," she said. A fourth-grader told of seeing trees on a mountaintop -- "the people there respected their environment," his teacher said.

The pupils, first- through sixth-graders, were in classes of about 50 children each. Each classroom was identical, with eight rows of seven desks each, a chalkboard in front, a framed national flag and a television.

Except for computer lab or physical education, the children stay in one classroom all day as teachers come and go. Male teachers wore deep purple shirts with khaki pants; the women, light beige blouses with dark beige skirts.

The most visible mode of individual expression was the pupils' book bags and pen-and-pencil tins, often decorated with cartoon characters (Snoopy was well-represented). But the children seemed a monolith of decorum, the boys' hair cut short, the girls' long hair kept in ponytails, as required. Their uniforms are mandatory on opening day and every Monday.

When a teacher called a class to attention, the pupils sat quietly and faced forward, many of them holding their hands behind their back to show discipline.

In sixth-grade class No. 1, pupils talked about van Gogh until exercise time. At 10:55 a.m. and 2:50 p.m., every pupil performed the eye-rubbing exercises to a count broadcast over the sound system -- five different strokes repeated 32 times each. Liu Yijing, a leader in the Young Pioneers, monitored the class to make sure everyone did the exercises correctly.

When classes ended at 3:45 p.m., the children filed out wearing bright yellow hats inscribed with the Chinese word for safety, for their trip home through heavy traffic.

Liu, the ranking Young Pioneer, stayed behind. The 10-year-old son of a taxi driver organized a group of classmates to monitor children when they return to school today and to take note of those not properly dressed. They should all have their uniforms.

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